What are we to make of nihilism? Some think it is the major problem of our times. Others think it is the normal human condition. Some think it is “the spirit of our age.” Some think it is an attitude and life stance to be passionately embraced, whether pessimistically or gleefully. Others think it is a critical challenge to be confronted and overcome.
Still others have never given it a second thought. Some may even be “banal nihilists” who have never even heard of the word and yet their entire worldview and way of life is unconsciously nihilistic. Some may be “card-carrying nihilists” who ironically find “meaning” in telling others with evangelistic zeal that “life is meaningless.” Finally, some have used philosophical and ethical nihilism as a cover to justify crime, vice, corruption, mayhem, madness and murder.
What is nihilism? The question of definition exposes the problem in formulating a coherent and consistence response to it. Bing’s dictionary offers three different meanings:
- total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
- belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
- disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth
Nihilism (/ˈnaɪ.ɨlɪzəm/ or /ˈniː.ɨlɪzəm/; from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.
The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws. Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction, among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.
Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.
The Wikipedia article distinguishes between different forms of nihilism, including metaphysical, epistemological, mereological (or compositional), existential, moral, and political nihilism. It presents a brief history of nihilism and its critics, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, along with the views of post-modernism, transcendental nihilism, methodological naturalism and scientific reductionism. Finally, it identifies the influence of nihilism in culture, including Dada, literature, music and film.
If one turns to Amazon Books one will discover a variety of scholarly expositions of nihilism. One book titled Nihilism by Freydis has this provocative lead-in:
“Nihilism represents the greatest existential challenge in human history, and no matter how hard you may try you cannot avoid it! Yet despite this importance rarely has a critical concept been more widely misunderstood, largely because so many lack the words and ideas needed to visualize and describe what is in fact a remarkably widespread sentiment. And now one iconoclastic author and radical thinker delivers what may be the most revolutionary book in print since Darwin’s The Origin of Species.”
Here we are being told that nihilism is the greatest existential challenge of our time, that it is more pervasive than most people realize, and that it is a concept that is widely misunderstood. If all this is true then it appears that nihilism is a complex idea, a perplexing condition and a cultural phenomena to which we had better give greater attention.
One response to nihilism is expressed in a book entitled “F**k it.” This response seems to be saying that nihilism is the way of nature, the human condition, the ethos of modernity, and the state of the world, so if you can’t beat um, join um. Just don’t care and don’t give a damn what other people think. Go your own way and do your own thing because in the end none of it matters anyway. We’re just “dust in the wind.”
Another response to nihilism says that nihilism is a condition to be confronted and overcome. Nietzsche advocates the way of self-overcoming and the will to power. Sartre advocates existential courage to live authentically and without “bad faith” in the face of meaningless futility. Camus advocates the hero of the absurd, “imagining Sisyphus smiling.” Heidegger and Tillich advocate the courage to be and the encounter with the Eternal Now after the shaking of the foundations. Pascal and Kierkegaard advocate the existential wager and theistic leap of faith. Michael Polanyi advocates the realization of “tacit knowledge and the personal dimension” that is ontologically transcendent and epistemologically prior to Cartesian substance extension, rational theory and scientific empiricism. John Haught advocates the spiritual implications of man’s “critical intelligence” (which includes affectivity, intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics and theoria). David Ray Griffin and Christian de Quincey advocate process panpsychism. Emerson, influenced by neo-platonism, Hindu Vedanta, Kantian transcendental idealism and English Romanticism advocates transcendentalism; Loren Eiseley and Ursula Goodenough advocate poetically and quasi-spiritually enriched approaches to the sciences of paleontology and biology. Karl Jaspers and Ken Wilber advocate philosophical visions of Encompassing and Integral Reality; Terry Eagleton advocates a transcendence of nihilism through literary and social criticism, including a Marxist apologetic and critique of Capitalism. William James advocates the pragmatic “the will to believe” in human values and spiritual transcendence in the midst of an ambiguous and pluralistic universe. Richard Rorty advocates a neo-pragmatic post-modern commitment to the values of “contingency, irony, and solidarity” without appeal either metaphysical or empirical claims such as religion and science, tradition or progress.
My point here is that there are all kinds of ways in which different persons have attempted to confronte and overcome the challenge of nihilism. Of course there are disagreements among those who have taken different paths, and some will accuse others of either evading the issue or falling short in their attempt to transcend emptiness, futility, meaninglessness and despair.
Others have been content to accept nihilism as the universal human condition and the final word on the subject. However, among card-carrying nihilists we can distinguish between three types: (1) deconstructive anarchists to say “to hell with everybody and everything;” (2) unconscious and assimilated players who take nihilism for granted and don’t think it’s a big deal. They might say “Sure, life sucks and then you die, but what are you gonna do about it? Just have a good time, life and let die.” (3) constructivist and transcendental nihilists who believe that since life has no intrinsic meaning we are radically free to construct our own subjective and personally satisfying meanings, or “immortality projects” as Ernest Becker called them.
A nihilistic constructivist might say, “In the end we all still die, but along the way we can enjoy “the illusions of meaning” and the useful fictions that we have constructed to give temporary shape and purpose to our shapeless and purposeless universe. We build our sand-castles along the seashore, knowing that soon the sea will come to wipe out our creative projects. But that’s OK because it is our instinctivenature to enjoy “lucid play” even in the face of its nihilistic negation. And who knows, maybe even if we cannot have what we really want, which is personal immortality, we can achieve a kind of ‘symbolic immortality’ in creating beautiful and useful things, and advancing the pursuit of knowledge, the care of the earth and the betterment of society during our objectively absurd but subjectively meaningful sojourn.”
I do believe that nihilism (and responses to it) represents one of the important challenges of our modern secular age, that its influence is more pervasive and banal than most people realize, that it is largely operating below our personal and collective radar, and that it is seriously misunderstood. My own response to the challenge of nihilism is a conviction that after we have faced up to and passed through the Dark Night of nihilism that we can come out the other side to begin the work of healing our souls and repairing our world. For me “giving up” and surrendering in defeat to meaninglessness, normlessness, futility and despair is not a viable option. Nor is shaking our fist in angry rage a real solution. The questions I ask of all philosophies and sciences, arts and letters, economics and politics, trades and technologies is this: What are you doing to heal the soul and repair the world? Do you have an “immortality project” or at least a “mortality project” that gives your life meaning and purpose beyond mere survival, security, diversion and amusement? If so, what is it? In what ways do you seek to realize your creative potential and to make a caring difference in your world? If you are committed to caring and creativity, to moral courage and conscious living then you are not a nihilist. You are saying a profound “yes” to life.